By Frank Deford
May 19, 2010

Back in the 1960s, Joan Weston was most likely the highest paid female athlete in the world. Of course, you probably never heard of her. She was the star of the Roller Derby. It wasn't her choice. It's just that she was a fabulous natural athlete and, in those days, there weren't many opportunities for women in professional sport.

One night, somewhere out on the road, because the Derby was always somewhere out on the road, Joanie held her little dog in her lap, sighed, and told me this, wistfully: "All I want out of the Roller Derby is to make good money, get out of it in one piece, and years from now, when I say I was in the Roller Derby, I want people to still know what it is. I want that."

Joanie died much too young back in 1997, but she'd be happy to know that, incredibly, yes, in 2010 a lot of people do know what the Roller Derby is. The sport, which was dreamed up in the '30s as a Depression divertissement, regularly has booms and busts, but it just can't be killed. In the last few years it's resurfaced again, but this time as an amateur participant sport -- and almost exclusively for women. This thing is like mah jong, on wheels.

The number keeps growing, but there are now more than five hundred women's leagues in sixteen countries, from all over North America, to Europe, to Australia, to Brazil, to Abu Dabai.

The A&E network did a reality show on the revival. Drew Barrymore made a movie about it. I even saw a musical comedy showcase. Now the Derby's actually starting to draw crowds in the thousands, with respectable ticket prices -- $15 to $20. So many women are migrating to the mayhem that two skaters, Jennifer Barbee and Alex Cohen, have written an "Insider's Guide" for aspiring skaters . . . or "dolls," as they prefer to be called.

Now, what kind of a woman would get herself involved in a disreputable fracas like this?

Well, you'd be surprised. The majority of skaters are college-educated, and many are professionals. Alex Cohen, for example, just happens to be the local host of "All Things Considered" in Pasadena. Our own NPRD -- National Public Roller Derby. She's skated under the nom du knockdown of "Axels of Evil," which is one-of-a-kind, as you have to register your skating name. Sorry, you wannabe dolls, these are also already taken: Margaret Thrasher, Demolicious, Baby Ruthless, Sybil Disobedience, Eve L. Stepmother, Georgia O'Grief and Ginger Smack.

For the skaters, the appeal seems to be that they can be both sexy and strong . . . and themselves. Also: The after-bout parties are fabulous.

My old friend Joanie Weston would be thrilled. Not only is the Derby thriving again, it's downright respectable to be a doll on wheels.

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